Review: The Battle of Salamis, by Barry Strauss

Review by W.J. Rayment

War has been endemic throughout history. There are always those willing to use force to impose themselves on their neighbors. The Persians, in the case of the Persian wars, were the aggressors. They mustered as many as 150,000 men (a huge army at the time), along with over 1200 navy ships to launch an invasion of Greece. The Greek army, by comparison was miniscule. But the Persian War did not hang on the turn of a land battle. The crucial moment would be a Naval battle off an Island near the coast of Attica called Salamis.

It would, indeed, be a desperate struggle, and to tell the exciting story up stepped the first great historian, Herodotus. He named his book "The Histories". His book pioneered methods of research and writing. He worked to verify all his facts with eyewitness interviews, exploration of the grounds upon which the battles were fought, examined written documents and more. This was over 2400 year ago.

In spite of the ground-breaking work of Herodotus, a new book, focusing on the Battle of Salamis, is certainly in order. In-depth analysis, coupled with florid story-telling based partly on new archeological evidence would be a great addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in ancient history. And we have it in a fascinating work by Barry Strauss, "The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece - and Western Civilization".

It is said that hind-sight is 20/20. This is at least partly true in that we have more facts especially about the outcome of an event than those who actually must make decisions in the heat of battle. In "The Battle of Salamis", Barry Strauss gets inside the strategies of the combatants. He details what they knew, and when they knew it. He even tells us what they thought they knew. For example, just prior to the battle, Themistocles, the Athenian commander, sent a message to the Persian Great King, Xerxes, falsely telling him that he was willing to turn traitor and bring the whole Athenian fleet with him. This action precipitated a chain of events that would ensure Greek victory. What the Persians thought they knew, then, was vital to the battle's outcome.

Barry Strauss is adept at bringing ancient characters to life. Beyond the sly, politician Themistocles even Xerxes, the remote Great King of Persia, himself, is made comprehensible. His actions make sense in the light of circumstances. Artemisia was one of the few woman admirals of history. Her part gives the story a feminist twist that many readers will find ironic in that the Persians used her more for the propaganda value even while she was probably one of the best admirals in the Persian fleet. Had they listened to her advice they would not have fought at Salamis on that fateful day.

History is a combination of narrative and analysis. It is a story that always has a moral because for every cause there is an effect. The Battle of Salamis was a battle that had a crucial influence on later events. It would especially precipitate the rise of Athenian Naval Power as well as the Peloponnesian Wars. Some even feel that the battle might have "saved" all of Western Civilization, making its foundation Greek rather than Persian. Thus we have Greek notions of Democracy and of individualism rather than Eastern notions that the leaders of a nation were Gods. Yet, it might be argued that such Eastern ideas finally did take precedence in the form of the Roman Empire. The idea that the Emperor was a God was directly borrowed from the East. However, it is a question whether anyone in the West took this idea as seriously as the emperors would have liked.

"The Battle of Salamis" is a fun page-turner for any fan of history. It belongs on the historian's library shelf somewhere between Christian Meier's "Caesar" and Michael Grant's "The Classical Greeks". It is available at Amazon.com.

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